Young people must be given more help and better incentives to start-up as crofters, the Cross-Party Working Group on Crofting was told this week at the Scottish Parliament. Following their three-day gathering in March, Young Crofters brought calls for action in two main areas: cash flow and access to land.
Current grant schemes are unworkable, they argued, requiring too much capital investment up-front. They suggest a return of loans for crofters instead; at one time, 40% of funding was given as a loan and there were very few instances of defaulting. On land access, it was claimed that significant numbers of crofts are unattended and if more funding were made available for the Crofting Commission to clamp down on this, more opportunities would arise for young crofters to move in.
And it was opportunity, not difficulty, that was on people’s minds here. The difficulties surrounding crofting are complex and interlinked, and a microcosm of rural issues more generally: limited broadband and mobile connectivity, limited employment opportunities, limited access to land. But by the same token, possible solutions are also interlinked. David Campbell of the Crofting Commission cited the South Uist estate where some 160 of the 1000 crofts are unused. If even half of these were freed up to allow some of the 120-long waiting list, many of them young people, to move in, it would also entail dozens of crofthouses being built, offering important economic stimulus to the area.
Another example given suggested wider broadband access would enable young people to gain an income online and therefore have the means to live on their croft. Providing broadband to highland and island communities is, it seems, a very high priority for the Scottish government, which is currently investing £154 million in the project, although with only one representative at this meeting it was hard to gauge the strength of their commitment. Land access is, of course, also a key issue with the Land Reform Bill currently in discussion and there is a real sense of common appetite for change.
Complex difficulties rarely meet simple solutions, however. Aspiring young crofters Maddie and Rob Norval who bought a croft outright but were left without money to build a house, now suggest that this encourages owners to ‘decroft’ and gradually turn crofts into housing sites; but Mr Campbell was cautious on the issue of increased grant payments to young crofters. A croft of 10-15 acres, he said, would typically cost £20-25,000; if croft house grants were increased to £60,000 in line with other house-building grants, the resale value on the open market would dramatically increase and there was a sense of unease around the expansion of an open market in crofts. Any land reform legislation must be careful to preserve tradition.
Perhaps there are some easier steps to take. Mr Finlay mentioned that around 650 crofters admit on official paperwork to leaving their croft unattended and surely there are mechanisms that could be put in place to allow young people to move in to attend to them, as long-term tenants at least. There are also many older crofters with no descendants anxious as to what will happen to their crofts.
At Young Crofters 20:20, a good deal of intergenerational conversation took place and there is certainly a need, in conjunction with policy development, for more interactions of this kind. Jean Urquhart MSP, chairing the meeting, and praising of the positive energy she witnessed at YC 20:20, brought the idea of a crofting conference within the year to help the community thrive in the way it both promises to and fears not being able to for much longer.